For all of you heading into the woods this July 4th weekend, here is a very dramatic picture by William R. Leigh, A Close Call. Painted in 1914, this picture is oil on canvas, measuring 40.5 x 60.5 and currently housed in the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more exciting painting than A Close Call. Here, a hunter unconscious after a bear attack, is protected by his dogs while a fellow hunter in the distance approaches.
Let’s start with Leigh’s masterful use of light. Notice that the hunter, bear and several of the dogs are in a brilliant shaft of light. The lesser shaft of light is in the background, drawing attention to the hunter racing to the rescue.
This painting is interesting when compared to others in Leigh’s oeuvre. It was not uncommon for Leigh to render a central figure with absolute realism, and then paint the ancillary figures and surroundings in a more Impressionistic manner. With A Close Call, however, all of the central figures are clearly depicted; even the forest setting benefits from a more articulated rendering than is customary with Leigh. (Look, for instance, at the barren branches just behind the bear on the right of the canvas. This is the kind of detail that Leigh often suggested rather than drew.)
Let’s take a moment to savor the drama of this picture. The bear and the fallen hunter form a perfect triangle; but Leigh actually improves on the inner structure by adding a circle (of dogs) around the triangle. Even more impressive, the hunter on his way to rescue his friend could easily be lost in the dynamic, but Leigh helpfully points to him with the white-tipped tree trunk directly below him.
We should also spare a thought for Leigh’s supreme draftsmanship here. The hunter is neatly done in extreme foreshortening; the bear convincingly furry and menacing. However, the real achievements here are the dogs. Leigh manages to create variations on a pose for all of them, creating a sense of individuality in each, and drawing them in convincing states of movement.
Leigh also scores points with his coloration (one of his most significant artistic assets). A picture like this could easily be too “brown” or dark; Leigh not only livens it up with the shaft(s) of light, but also employs his signature bright colors. The dogs here are nearly as colorful as paint horses, and the variations in the bear’s coat keep the monster from being a mere brown blot with fangs and claws.
This is not my favorite work by Leigh – while I certainly appreciate its technical excellence, something about it (the number of dogs? the approaching rescue?) pitches the tenor perilously over-the-top. It is, however, an interesting image to have in mind while camping this weekend.
More William Leigh Thursday and Friday!